It’s a sure bet that any Hollywood movie about people who are dying or people who are crazy will want to pound into us a lesson about the Meaning of Life. It is a well-known factoid that the fatally ill and the insane have special insight into such matters. These films usually star Robin Williams or, in a disturbing new trend, the formerly interesting Kevin Spacey, and the Meaning of Life usually consists of spending more time with the family, romping in the surf with golden retrievers, and appreciating sunsets.
Note to Hollywood: The message has been received. We get it. And we’d like to goof off more and gather daisies and be licked by puppies and go to the kids’ soccer game on Saturdays. We wish you’d make movies that tell us whether it’s better to blow off paying the gas or the telephone when we skip overtime at the office or bypass picking up that extra shift at the factory in order to bake cookies with grandma. We wish you’d tell us how all these fabulously successful doctors and architects you hold up as shining examples of Meaning-of-Lifeness would have gotten to be fabulously successful if they hadn’t worked 100 hours a week, if they’d been following your Meaning of Life plan from the beginning.
That, we don’t get.
They’re like TV advertisements for financial service companies with names you say in hushed, reverent whisper, movies like K-pax and Life as a House. An attractive middle-aged couple, the legs of their pants rolled up as they stroll on the beach at sunset, her arm through his as she smile up at her rich, news-anchor handsome husband: and the announcer, probably Edward Herrmann or Martin Sheen, informs you that after all your hard work, you’ve earned your success, you’ve earned a rest, and Williamson & Moneybags Investment House can help you do that, with your own personal cancer patient or nutter to guide you on the way.
The physically or mentally ill can put you on the path to happiness, but ya gotta have that financial cushion first. Otherwise, you’re fucked.
It Came from Outer Spacey
Dr. Mark Powell is a respected head shrinker with a corner office in a fantasy New York City in which Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral is next to the Bronx’s elevated 1/9 subway. If only the rest of his life were so dreamy! He doesn’t talk to his own adult son! He won’t take a vacation with his precious little girls! He has no time to spend with his 20-years-younger wife! He has lost sight of the important things in life, like why he married the hot babe who doesn’t mind his flabby 50-year-old body.
Oh, but Dr. Powell is about to get all his gears shifted by “the most convincing delusional [he’s] ever come across”: a dude who calls himself Prot and says he comes from the planet K-pax, 20 light years away. (The same distance between Powell and his wife! Coincidence? I think not.) Prot has his own problems, sure, but none so important as getting Powell back on the path of happiness.
Prot’s first problem is that he is Kevin Spacey (Pay It Forward, The Big Kahuna), who appears to have been taking not only ham lessons from Robin Williams but advice on the symbolic value of being unshaven onscreen as well. Prot’s second problem is that he thinks he is an alien, which means that Spacey gets to talk in that clunky, Rain Man sort of way, making pointed observations about the obvious, like the sun is bright and strawberries are good. He eats bananas without peeling them, a certain sign of extraterrestrial origin.
At first, you’d suspect that Jeff Bridges’ (The Contender, Simpatico) Powell would be sympathetic, having had his own experience with alienness in Starman. But no: he thinks Prot — if that is his name — is using the E.T. delusion as a shield to protect himself from reality. He just wants to help… which is only keeping him from his family and his incredible suburban spread and his green lawn and his barbecue and his golden retriever all the more. The irony! Bridges still retains the distinction that I thought Spacey would also long hold, that of Never Being Bad or Boring Onscreen, but neither director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove) nor screenwriter Charles Leavitt (the film is based on a novel by Gene Brewer) are very nice to him, constantly positioning Powell between a rock and a hard place, wanting him to be the dedicated doctor but constantly slamming him as a rotten father and a worse husband. They give him no way to win.
So, is Prot an alien or just crazy? It doesn’t matter, because every life he touches — including all the charmingly crazy people with whom he is hospitalized in Powell’s facility — will be changed for the better. Everyone say Awww… it’s Heartwarming(TM)! Prot talks to the dog. He eats a lot of fruit. He shows us the way.
What, I Died on My Summer Vacation?
When we first meet Kevin Kline in Life as a House, he has just awoken in his defiantly derelict house at the end of a swank Southern California street. He stumbles outside, with his golden retriever, in nothing but his tightie whities to pee over the edge of the cliff into the ocean below. He flashes his neighbor, to his great amusement and her peeved consternation. He — and this is important — does not shave.
Bold disregard for mainstream mores? Check. Happy, tongue-lolling dog? Check. Constant view of Mother Ocean, with handy cliff for “reckless” diving? Check. Surely, this is a man who not only understands but truly lives the Meaning of Life.
It is not enough. Kline’s (The Road to El Dorado, Wild Wild West) George mustn’t be unconventional enough, because he is estranged from his teenaged son, Sam (the future Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen: The Virgin Suicides). But the answer is at hand: untreatable cancer. For the good of Sam and for the benefit of those of us unenlightened in the audience, George must die.
Not right away, of course. Fortunately, George has been afflicted with that rare end-stage cancer that allows you to do extensive physical labor, so he decides to finally build his dream house, right there on this perfect, cliffside, Meaning- of- Life spot. More fortunately, George has just been fired from his job as an architect, leaving him not only plenty of free time in his final days but a ludicrous severance payout to finance the project. And since school has just let out for the summer, Sam can help, and in the process the father-son bond can be strengthened just in time for it to be severed forever.
Kline and Christensen give terrific, heartfelt performances, both together and separately, as two people in lonely pain who find each other. But screenwriter Mark Andrus (As Good as It Gets) relies too much on convenient coincidence in his plotting and schizophrenic morality in his message. (George letting Sam do whatever he wants is bad for his growth as a human being, but a neighbor mom letting her teenaged daughter do whatever she wants — including shower with a male houseguest — is an indication of her maturity. Doesn’t work that way.) Life as a House is slyer than K-pax, which is content to smack you about the head for two hours. This manipulative weepie will bring a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye, but you’ll bitterly resent how it was extracted.